Try to remember what you were doing 50 years ago. Playing big black flat circular play devices called albums, that's what. If you are old enough to have memories a half-century old, that is, and if you are, chances are good you don't have those records anymore. But Dave Mason, one of the original members of the folksy, bluesy and jazzy British experimental rock band Traffic, can remember pretty well ... well enough to keep on touring to keep the flame of those seminal years of rock'n'roll alive, and he's stuck around long enough for those old LPs to become fashionable again.
He is one of those few people still on the circuit with direct connections to the British Invasion and classic rock. Other than his early Traffic years, he played with Jimi Hendrix on the "Electric Ladyland" sessions, jammed with the Rolling Stones on the "Beggar's Banquet" album, and was on hand for George Harrison's bountiful "All Things Must Pass" triple-decker record. In the 1990s, he was yet another member of a reformed Fleetwood Mac. He was even with Derek and the Dominoes originally, playing at the band's first gig featuring Eric Clapton, but left before "Layla" had scorched the radio landscape in 1972.
And at the age of 68, he's still working in the guitar-rock tradition. For example, he released a new album this year, "Future's Past," which kicks off with a version of the Traffic hit "Dear Mr. Fantasy" that includes a new set of chords, moving it from a minor to a major key, with Mason singing the lead instead of Steve Winwood, with vigor.
He says his current act, Dave Mason's Traffic Jam, a fully electric rock show, follows the long trail of his career. That journey began with the early inspirational days when Traffic retreated into a cottage in the Berkshires of England in 1967 to develop material for what would become "Mr. Fantasy." After that, a long string of solo albums throughout the 1970s, when he was one of the darlings of album-oriented rock radio on the FM dial with such songs as "Only You Know and I Know," "Shouldn't Have Took More Than You Gave" and a more mid-tempo ballad recorded by many others, "We Just Disagree."
Traffic, inducted into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, was always a kind of evolving entity with a revolving door, in terms of the players, Mason recalls.
"I was there for the beginning of the first two bands," he says of the early incarnations of Traffic. "So Dave Mason's Traffic Jam is a journey of my musical history from then to now."
And he makes sure the interviewer knows that you can't trust that musical history by reading Wikipedia.org.
"The stuff about me on the Wikipedia page is ... I don't go in for it much," he says.
For example, Mason says it's true he met Steve Winwood while working as a roadie for little 15-year-old Stevie's band, The Spencer Davis Group. And it's true Mason and Jim Capaldi, a long-time member of Traffic who gave the band its name while standing on a street corner, were friends in a band called the Hellions prior to that. And it's also true that Mason was a frequent on-again, off-again member of the band, more a member of its 1967-1970 heyday than of the band that would later reach the height of its popularity with such extended jazz-folk-rock adventures as "John Barleycorn Must Die" and "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys," which was also notable for its die-cut cover in 1971.
Indeed, Mason, even as the band's most prolific songwriter, was a mercurial element in the group that launched him professionally just as much as he launched it.
"After the first album, I was so young, 19 years old, and being in the band was too much to deal with," he says. "The second time I went into the studio (with Traffic), I wrote half that album," including the song "Feelin' Alright," one of the more frequently covered songs of the era, including a version by Three Dog Night, and then, Joe Cocker, who made hits out of it as well. Does Mason remember the inspiration for that one?
"I don't know," he laughs. "It's probably just another failed relationship song."
One more note on the Wikipedia history: It's completely untrue that when Mason, a sought-out studio musician as a solo artist, played acoustic guitar on Jimi Hendrix's version of "All Along the Watchtower," he did not need 27 takes to get it right.
"We went into the studio and we did a few takes," he says. "I don't think we had to do it 27 times, but sometimes you will spend a whole day in the studio on one song." Did he have a sense of premonition that "All Along the Watchtower," which he still plays live today, would become a monument in rock history? "It was already an important (Bob Dylan) song when we recorded it," he responds.
And how did it feel to have others make hits in the U.S. of his early Traffic songs? Mason says he loved it. It only seemed fair.
"We took everything we could find from America and made it our own: jazz, gospel, the blues," he says. "I just drank it in."
The Dave Mason of 2014 is reverential of those moments of Traffic when he was there, as opposed to when he was not. The set list for the Traffic Jam shows includes "Feelin' Alright," "40,000 Headmen," "You Can All Join In," as well as a reconfigured "Dear Mr. Fantasy." Added to that are several songs from a prolific solo career, a period that could be remembered as the great age of the vinyl album, beginning with his 1970s release, "Alone Together," which he says could have very easily fit in as material for a Traffic album, "but that's the way it is."
To this day, Mason remains a believer in the AOR rock ethos, keeping tight with his musical origins as well as social causes and charities, including work for organizations that provide music appreciation instruction for children.
"I really don't follow what's going on in music too much," he says. "I'm so busy with my own stuff, and I'm really not paying attention. There are still talented people out there, but I don't think albums really matter any more. It has gone back to singles, which is the way it was when we got started. In that way, everything has changed. There's no real FM radio anymore. But otherwise, it's the same as always. You need a song and you need a performance."
Hello, my name is ... and I confess I have been a repeat stereophonic offender. As instructed, I have a hearing headset attached over my ears to keep my music private, until the revolution comes round again, that is. Oh, back in the day, in those rock'n'roll explosions of teenage angst, we built speakers big as obelisks. Sure, I'd started out on the soft stuff. But that universe was shaped by the Beatles. Then it was Beethoven, on eight-track cassette, and the family's 70s style Sears sound system. Then on to harder stuff, John Denver. Three Dog Night. And then, Elton John. But it was Bachman Turner Overdrive, then Kiss, oh Jesus, the best hoax in the history of rock. But not Led Zeppelin. That was too loud, too dangerous, too long-haired for the home censors. I kept Led Zeppelin in reserve. Pink Floyd on the dark side of the moon, For the day of the big breakout.
The inspiration for all of this was the day the next door neighbor in north Scottsdale played Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." My father and I were sitting on the back porch and we just looked at each other like, "What the hell?"
So what followed was inevitable.
That time came when we built four-foot-tall speakers in a custom cabinet, that, despite our best efforts, rattled and hummed with too much bass because of the over-sized woofer, mid-range and tweeter. From that point on the family home was a living being of pulsing, vibrating rebellion sound. My parents were amazingly reserved, under the circumstances. But when left to my own devices, it was a house shaker, profoundly disturbing enough to generate true hatred from the neighbors, despite my emerging good music tastes.
And then there was the day the maid ran out the door.
But it wasn't led Zeppelin who ran her away (OK, I'm not going into why we had a maid, other than to say my mom was always sick, OK?). It was Jon and Vangelis. Featuring Jon Anderson of Yes, hardly from the branch of the demon rock tree. But his voice is pretty otherworldly, so I could see someone easily getting spooked. But with Vangelis, a lightweight electronic composer? Hardly the stuff to set off earthquake alarms. Anyway, the maid was from San Salvador, and may have had some PTSD symptoms. We were blasting some soaring pre-electronica track and she flew away from the ghost in the machine of sound and never came back. She ran out the door claiming she'd heard the devil.
Now the important thing to know at this point is all along, I was simply sharing music. To the max. Just pure enthusiasm. But now that I'm older and wiser, having gone through multiple instances in which I truly believed loudly playing, say, the newest U2 album, might do the world some good, I have now rethought those years, making some sad conclusions about the role of popular music in our society in the process.
Basically, goes like this: Not everybody's antenna is willing to tune in. Or even capable of tuning in, getting the vibe, whatever. No matter how good the tunes are, when that bass-burping automobile goes rumbling, with the bass and drum audible for a city block, it's no more effective of a persuader than any religious witness pounding on your door.
Beyond a doubt one of the most incendiary noise bombs in the history of classic rock is
"21st Century Schizoid Man," by King Crimson in 1969. It's a Vietnam Era shock and awe of mustard gas guitars, the harsh distortion of the voice. Tis the volume that was the anti-matter, so to speak.
Here are a few more factoids I can think of regarding sound and violence. First of all, I cannot compete in an apartment complex. I am on the weak side of detente with next-door folks who have sound systems that can vibrate the walls. They played the Talking Heads' "This is not my beautiful house" song so loud, I knew I couldn't compete with my computer desk speakers, which are only as big as small bricks.
Other facts in rock history: Pink Floyd once killed a lake of fish playing too loud in the 1960s,
And governments do this kind of thing all of the time. They point sophisticated sound systems at crowds, bass disrupters to the belly, punk bass drone strike. These are the types of technologies cities invest in when they get a big boost federal cash for convention security. The main symptom is a sickness to the stomach.
During the Reagan Administration, U.S. military forces in pursuit of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega used heavy metal played on huge speakers to try convince him to resign and turn himself in. In Iraq, music has been used as a psychological weapon, For example, in torture. But in a broader sense, more like you would think of as Wagner is played during the "cavalry" helicopter attack in "Apocalypse Now." They kept the Branch Dividians in Waco, Texas up all night with it: endless blasts of Van Halen and Ozzie Osborne and Metallica, basically making the cult's point, that the horns are blowing at last.
Today my speakers are small as stones, monuments to the day the music died. Polishing the psychic arrows now through the headset contraption, where most of us are cut off from the well, I'm a loser in a war against the Jericho walls of the mundane world.